Bush touts Florida education changes to Mississippi policymakers

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told Mississippi legislators Tuesday changes made in his state – and now being considered in Mississippi by Gov. Phil Bryant and others – helped improve student achievement.
Bush, who served as Florida governor from 1999 until 2007, spoke to dozens of Mississippi legislators from both parties and others interested in education about the changes made to the education system in Florida and what would work in Mississippi.
The primary focus of those changes is “choice” for parents in terms of charter schools, tax credits to attend private schools, vouchers for special-education students and additional accountability standards.
“Competition creates a tension that creates a great chance of innovation,” said Bush, who spoke in the House chamber of the old state Capitol at an event sponsored by Mississippi Center for Public Policy and Mississippi First.
Bryant, who said he wants the focus of the 2013 legislative session to be on education, acknowledged some of the changes proposed by Bush already are in effect in Mississippi, but said more needs to be done.
He specifically cited the need for a strong charter school law in Mississippi. Charter schools are public schools that do not have to adhere to many of the rules and regulations of traditional public schools, but agree to a contract (a charter) to meet certain standards.
Charter school legislation died during the 2012 session when it was opposed by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans.
Bryant also is pushing a performance-based pay plan for teachers.
Another change Bryant is proposing that was passed in Florida is to ensure children read on grade level before being promoted from the third grade.
Asked about the possibility of his supporting a voucher system to send children to private schools or a tax credit for the same purpose, Bryant said, it was “something we will certainly be looking at. … We will talk about those issues.”
Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, who attended the event, said he also would like to look at those issues, but acknowledged the state Constitution might prevent direct payments to non-public schools in the form of the voucher, but might not preclude a tax credit. He said the credit would be used to assist low-income students.
One area where Florida is far outpacing Mississippi is in terms of early childhood education. The Florida Constitution guarantees voluntary universal pre-kindergarten. The system is not part of the traditional public schools, but instead parents receive an annual voucher of $2,500 for the pre-K school of their choice.
Bush said the key is to have the pre-K schools focus on literacy instead of just being a baby-sitting service.
Mississippi is the only Southern state not to spend any state funds on pre-kindergarten education.
When Bush was asked how to pay for the various proposals, which include reading specialists in elementary classrooms, he said the key is to pay for the changes first – not last.
Bush, the brother and son of former Republican presidents, said members of both political parties recognize the importance of making changes to the nation’s school system in an attempt to improve student performance.